- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

The disgrace of Jeffrey Archer, bestselling author and onetime peer in Great Britain’s House of Lords, is rather a breathtaking story in its own right. In 1986, while the married Mr. Archer was deputy chairman of the Conservative party, the Daily Star and News of the World reported that he’d slept with a call girl. Mr. Archer sued for libel and won a record-breaking award.

In the original libel case, the sitting judge pompously summed up the complete illogic of claiming the posh gentleman Archer had gone in for low-rent sex with a prostitute: “Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel round about quarter to one on a Tuesday morning after an evening at the Caprice?”

Whether or not he needed such tawdry solace, Mr. Archer’s story that he did not receive it ran into some problems, the kind for which there is no prophylactic. Two witnesses changed their stories, including the man who vouched for Mr. Archer’s whereabouts at the time of his reported rendezvous with the call girl. This triggered another lawsuit, this one criminal, in which the politician and author was tried for perjury as well as perverting the cause of justice, a juicy phrase given the context, though it simply means obstruction. Mr. Archer was sentenced to four years in prison.

He also had to repay the libel settlements he’d won.

This summer the international bestselling author and onetime star of the Conservative party got out of jail. He is now publishing his first book since going to the big house, a prison memoir.

The first difference one notices between Mr. Archer’s other books and this one, “A Prison Diary,” is in the scale. Mr. Archer’s fiction showcases the fortunes of rich and powerful world conquerors playing on a global stage; his prison memoir is populated by losers, obscure dangerous men reduced to living in 5 by 8 cells and watched over by low-wage civil servants.

Big action and the broad gesture of heroic storytelling are replaced by ennui and the unlikely details of life without the freedom of action. This miniaturization of subject does not, unfortunately, play to Archer’s strengths, although he is a good reporter of the day-in-the-life facts of being in prison: what’s for lunch, why it’s so hard to get any exercise done, the rap music played at all hours.

His political education makes Mr. Archer a keen, if unoriginal, student of the prison as an institution. Many of the problems he identifies are common themes among reformers, but he renders them with fresh urgency as he gives each one a name and a little life story.

So, the question of whether long-term incarceration is an appropriate punishment for, say, cases of theft where the defendant confessed to the crime and returned the property grabs you by the lapels when he is called Ali, and you imagine this honest but fallible guy selling his house to pay back the money he stole from his employer, only to be arrested later on and sent away for seven or eight months, after which he’ll have to emigrate to find work.

Mr. Archer’s from-the-inside perspective is most valuable when it comes to the hard-to-imagine twists of criminal justice that rarely come up in policy debate. The best example is how mandatory drug testing of prisoners unintentionally encourages the use of heroin over less dangerous drugs: Unlike a low-caliber drug like marijuana whose use lands the prisoner in hot water, heroin makes it possible for the user to escape detection since its trace elements can be flushed out by drinking water according to the author.

Another unexpected tidbit Mr. Archer provides is the story of 23-year-old Peter, builder and family man, who is serving just a few weeks for driving a commercial truck without the appropriate license. At Belmarsh prison, also known as Helmarsh, Peter is placed in the company of serious offenders facing very hard time, which can have serious consequences. Peter is offered a huge sum of money to bump off, when he gets out, a witness testifying against his cellmate. Needless to say, it shouldn’t be a function of incarceration to encourage a non-criminal to become a first-degree murderer.

Mr. Archer’s main failing as a prison diarist is his lack of moral self-scrutiny. Indeed, though he sits among the damned, Mr. Archer composes himself as if he is in the warm-up room before a big parliamentary debate, on a few occasions even directing his remarks to the crown’s representatives: “Home secretary, you are doing irreparable damage to decent people’s lives and you have no right to do so.”

Whether or not this is a moral failing of Mr. Archer’s, it is definitely a literary failing of his diary, leaving strange incongruities in its wake. For instance, Mr. Archer invokes as his hero Oscar Wilde, who on libel charges did his own stint in prison, where he wrote the incomparable “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” most famous for its self-condemning line: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.” Which is an appropriate sentiment for an elegy for man’s most self-destructive tendencies and appropriate for Wilde, who, though he maintained his innocence, was indisputably guilty.

While interesting that Mr. Archer should invoke the guilty and sexually misadventurous Wilde, everything else in Mr. Archer’s memoir suggests he is little tempted to see the worst in himself.

Mr. Archer is a better raconteur when it comes to the stories of other prisoners. He makes a sympathetic scribe to his inmates, reporting their downfalls with economy and comedy. And, helpfully, Archer tags every prisoner when he makes an entrance, like so: “David (life imprisonment, possession of a gun) is the only person watching the cricket on television.” And he finds at least one prisoner who makes a most interesting character study — a bruiser named Fletch imprisoned for the murder of a man who molested him when he was a child and a ward of the state—except Mr. Archer hasn’t any gift for psychology.

Mr. Archer’s memoir is perfectly readable but glib in the extreme. Too bad such qualities often walk hand in hand.

David Skinner is assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

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